VAT Attack! Another reason it is a bad idea

October 28, 2009

One reason many free-marketeers want to take a pass on a value-added tax is that it would only fuel bigger government via higher tax revenues. Indeed, the good folks at TaxVox find new research that helps make that case (bold is mine)”

In the most recent edition of the American Economic Review, Raj Chetty, Adam Looney, and Kory Kroft, examine the effect of tax transparency – what economists call salience – on economic efficiency.

Traditionally, economists view the structure and application of a tax as unimportant. All that matters is the change in relative prices. But Chetty, Looney, and Kroft find that structure and application do matter. For example, they find that consumers are less likely to buy an item if a sales tax is explicitly listed on the product than if the same tax is instead added at check-out.

Chetty, Looney, and Kroft’s theoretical model indeed shows that efficiency increases as a tax becomes less salient. However, their model also shows that reducing the salience of a tax will necessarily harm consumers (albeit not by as much as it helps the government). In other words, tricking consumers into thinking a tax does not exist has two effects: 1) it leads them to poor consumption choices; and 2) it increases tax revenue because more transactions are taxed. In dollar terms, the harm to consumers is less than the increase in revenues. But whether or not you view an opaque tax as a useful policy instrument depends on whether you think the gains to government coffers are worth the reductions in consumer welfare.

As Milton Friedman feared, government can go a step further. If complicated and opaque taxes can dull consumer response, they can also dull the political penalty associated with higher tax rates. An optimizing government could then increase tax rates by more than fully-informed voters would like.  Amy Finkelstein, in the most recent edition of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, finds that drivers are less aware of tolls paid electronically and that switching from toll booths to electronic tolls led to a 20 to 40 percent rate increase. In other words, as salience goes down, tax rates go up.

Me: But for Team Obama, the hidden nature of a VAT would be a feature not a bug. The same approach is being tried with a) healthcare taxes via an excise tax on health insurance companies that will be passed onto consumers, and b) cap-and-trade which is a hidden energy tax that will also be passed along. There is nothing wrong with the idea of a consumption tax as long as it a) replaces other taxes and b) is transparent, such as would be the case with the Hall-Rabusha flat consumption tax.

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Not hard to understand, but not obvious, either.

Very enlightening.